Even after he failed to annex the Sudan, King Leopold II continued to fantasize about building an African empire for Belgium. He spoke with William Gladstone, the prime minister of England, about leasing Uganda, while still claiming to be interested in Africa for purely humanitarian purposes. He even proposed sending “humanitarian armies” to Greece and Armenia to protect the people. While none of these schemes succeeded, Leopold continued to extract huge sums of money from his Congo territory; with his fortune, he built museums, palaces, and monuments. In 1895, he was sixty years old, and still trying to grow the Belgian empire. He invested some of his Congolese profits in a Chinese railway, and made another fortune with the deal. This allowed him to buy a small patch of land in China, in the name of the “Independent State of the Congo.”
King Leopold II devoted enormous attention to his Congolese colony; however, he also wanted to expand his African territory. It’s important to remember that the European powers blocked him from expanding his territory, not because they objected to his cruelty, but because they didn’t want Belgium to become a dangerous political and economic rival. However, Hochschild begins to suggest here that King Leopold might have succeeded in expanding further into China had there not been an international outcry against his cruelty in Africa.
Leopold ordered the building of a new railroad in the Congo for shipping rubber. The project required new slave labor; after eight years of work, it’s estimated that 1800 Africans died in the construction of the railroad. During this time, Leopold had to fend off the criticisms of missionaries like William Sheppard, who had seen first-hand the state of the Congo. However, Sheppard wasn’t a public relations master like Leopold or Stanley, and he wasn’t able to tell many powerful people the truth about the Congo.
In this section, Hochschild makes an important distinction between telling the truth and being good at public relations. It’s wasn’t enough for Sheppard to write articles about the cruelty of the Congo—in order to threaten Leopold’s regime in the Congo, he would have had to do more to popularize his articles and influence powerful people in Europe and America.
In 1895, Leopold faced his first real public relations challenge: reports of a Congo state officer who had executed a white officer, Charles Stokes. Stokes had married an African woman and sold arms to Arab merchants; for these crimes, the Force Publique hanged him. This proved to be a huge mistake. When news of the hanging reached England, journalists pointed out the truth: if the Congo’s army hanged white officers, “think what it must do to the natives.” Journalists began paying more attention to reports of Congo atrocities. In response, Leopold created a Commission for the Protection of Natives (CPN), and sent it to monitor the situation in the Congo. However, CPN representatives were never sent to rubber harvesting areas—they weren’t allowed to see the true atrocities of the Congo. Leopold’s strategy proved effective; for the most part, European elites continued to regard him as an honest, kind-hearted ruler.
The fallout from Charles Stokes’s execution wasn’t immediately harmful to Leopold’s reputation; Leopold had done such a good job of currying favor on the international stage that many continued to think of him as a philanthropic giant. Still, the execution represented an early “chink” in Leopold’s armor. It’s important to note that after decades in which the Force Publique murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent Congolese people, the death of one European man sparked an international outcry. This is another clear reminder of the racism of Western society at the time.
In 1897, Belgium hosted the world’s fair. One of the most talked-about exhibits was a celebration of the Congo, featuring 267 black men, women, and children, “imported from the Congo.” Speakers claimed that the Africans of the Congo were uncivilized, crude, and barbaric. Local journalists wrote articles about how “dangerous” the 267 Africans were.
Hochschild suggests that Belgium continued to rule the Congo because it concealed its own actions. But in part, he also implies, Belgian tyranny in the Congo persisted because many Westerners accepted and even welcomed racism against African people, since they believed that Africans were crude and sub-human.
In the mid-1890s, Edmund Dene Morel, a young, hardworking man, began working for a company called Elder Dempster, a Liverpool shipping line that carried all cargo in and out of the Congo. Morel, who spoke French and English, worked in both France and England, supervising Congo shipments and interacting with some of the top Congo executives. Quickly, Morel realized that European companies regularly shipped huge quantities of guns and ammunition to the Congo. He also discovered that someone was skimming profits: the total wealth produced in the Congo was much greater than the profits that the Belgian government claimed. Finally, Morel realized that there was a trade imbalance: the Congo was shipping out ivory and rubber, but nothing was going into the territory except for guns. He gradually realized the truth: the Congo relied upon slave labor. As Morel realized this, “King Leopold II acquired his most formidable enemy.”
The first part of the book ends with a description of Edmund Dene Morel, arguably the most important figure in the Congo reform movement of the 1890s and 1900s. Morel was only a young man working for a shipping company when he realized that King Leopold was a corrupt man who used slave labor to further his own interests. Morel’s single-minded commitment to justice and human rights, combined with his refusal to take bribes or respond to threats, led him to found an international movement to stop Belgian tyranny in the Congo.